Just a typical lapsed lawyer (J.D., Northwestern ’68)

Lawyers turn into ex-lawyers for a host of reasons. The transition can be voluntary or not. We all know that erstwhile attorneys have successfully gone on to become, among thousands of other things, consultants, teachers, writers, and entrepreneurs. Late last year, in partnership with our friends at Adam Smith Esq., we reached out to lapsed lawyers to ask them their personal stories. Why did they choose the law in the first place? Why did they leave? What are they up to now? Do they regret leaving the practice of law? (A whopping 93% said “no” to that last question.)

We were quite pleased with the level of response to our survey: 430 former (or “recovering”) lawyers shared their stories with us. The tales they told us bring to mind a sort of inversion of Tolstoy’s line about happy and unhappy families. Those who were positive about their time spent practicing had a diverse range of experiences; those who were unhappy mostly tell the same story.

Read on for the details.

Why did you go to law school?

The most commonly cited reason for attending law school by the former attorneys was that they thought it would be “intellectually stimulating.” As for the number two reason for attending law school, it was a tie between “I thought I would be good at it” and “I thought a law degree could lead to a versatile career path — not just practicing law.” Only 36% of respondents thought that a J.D. was “guaranteed ticket to a high-paying job,” and fewer still (22%) of the ex-lawyers told us they went to law school because they were “passionate about practicing law.” I think we all agree that, in an ideal world, that last motivation ought to rank higher.

How was practicing law?

We asked the former lawyers to characterize the time they spent practicing law. Ironically, in light the “intellectual stimulation” anticipated by so many, the most common (58%) descriptor chosen to characterize their time practicing law was “boring.” About half of our respondents worked at Am Law 200 firms. Here in descending order are the other choices (respondents could select as many choice as applied to them):

• Too high-pressure (44%)
• I didn’t fit in (40%)
• It was challenging—in a good way (39%)
• I learned a lot (39%)
• I had no life (37%)
• I felt pigeon-holed (31%)
• It was exciting (29%)
• I liked my colleagues (28%)
• It was very competitive (27%)
• It was too hard (6%)

Nothing too surprising here, although the relatively low percentage of people who liked their colleagues is striking and/or depressing. As mentioned above, there was a lot of thematic consistency in the comments by formerly unhappy lawyers. Here are some representative examples:

“My husband and I were fighting about who would get to work on Memorial Day.”

“I was called into the office at 11 pm to prepare a term sheet for the following morning. At 5 am, I looked across my desk at two partners who were also there with me, and realized it never gets any better.”

“[W]atching young partners go from great health to chronic illness by working 20 hour days for months on end, watching marriages fail, watching otherwise nice people turn into nasty people, etc. sure helped confirm my decision.”

“I realized that being an attorney consisted of basically doing the same boring things over and over – yet those boring things were important enough to become the focus of the majority of one’s thoughts both in and out of work. I just don’t care enough about anything other than my family to think about it 24/7.”

“I hated conflict, the competitive atmosphere, the almighty billable hour and the long hours.”

Despite all the dreary accounts of abusive partners and grinding hours expectations we received, there are some positive takeaways from our survey. We asked, “Looking back at your time practicing law, how would you describe your feeling and reactions (check all that apply).” The results:

So a majority of respondents consider their time practicing as a “terrific learning experience,” and nearly half believe that it set them up nicely for their subsequent careers. So this survey was not an exercise simply about conjuring up the usual parade of Biglaw horribles.

What are you up to now?

Our respondents are all over the place in terms of their current professions and pursuits. Or lack thereof. These were the top choices:

• A non-practicing lawyer at a firm/in-house (18%)
• A consultant (21%)
• A business person (27%)
• An entrepreneur (22%)
• Not working (21%)
• Parenting (16%)

That last one, “parenting,” was the subject of some commentary we received that contradicted the notion that women attorneys can “have it all.” Here are two lapsed lawyers on why they left the law:

“I don’t believe you can practice law part time in a large firm with high stakes matters (I was a litigator), clients have to come first, and I knew that I would need more time to raise children.”

“Got knocked up and was single. You can (sort of) have kids as a female lawyer in a big firm, but no way in hell can you do it as a SINGLE female.”

Well, to quote the ruthless narrator of Jeremy Blachman’s hilarious Anonymous Lawyer (affiliate link), “We have a work-life balance. Scales balance in all sorts of ways.”


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